Spotted from Antarctica: the Oldest Light in the Universe

How do you study light from the beginning of the universe? What happened right after the Big Bang? How was the energy from such a high energy explosion distributed, and what is it doing now? We interviewed Ph.D. student, Jessica Avva, for some answers.

Jessica is working on a Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley, has an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Chicago, and has been asking lots of questions about high energy events in space. To answer her questions, she is specializing in cosmology instrumentation and studying high energy events in space. Jessica uses her expertise to learn about neutrinos and gravitational waves, and recently worked on the South Pole Telescope. In 2016, Jessica was honored with an invitation to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, where she had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with several Nobel Laureates in her field. Between Antarctica and Berkeley and Germany, we caught up with Jessica to ask her about her time at the South Pole. Read on to hear about life and research on the ice continent, where the average temperature is -60 ºF!

Where do you study/work/research, and what is your research about? What questions are you trying to answer?

As a Ph.D. student in Physics, I specialize in cosmology instrumentation, or, building instruments that try to understand the nature of the unverse. Specifically, I am working on the 3G reciever of the South Pole Tesescope. This telescope looks at the oldest light in the universe, the Cosmic Microwave Background, and will help us understand the nature of neutrinos, how gravitational waves behaved right after the Big Bang, and constrain CDMcosmology.

Jessica Avva and the South Pole Telescope Photo credit: Kyle Story


What life experiences led you to where you are now?

I’ve always been really instrested in space – from learning my planets as a kid to being awed by the air and space museum. As I got older I realized that instead of studying objects in space, such as stars or supernova remnants, I was most interested in pushing the boundaries of the awesome strangeness of the universe — searching for the highest energy events that space has to offer, and constraining fundamental physics in that way.

What do you do in Antarctica? Why is this location important for your research? How long will you be there?

The South Pole Telescope

The South Pole Telescope is, as one might expect, at the South Pole. The two simplest reasons that it’s there is first, to take advantage of the dry air, and second, to take advantage of the sky rotation. Dry air is important because the atmosphere gets in the way of seeing space – the dryer the atmosphere, the less contamination from water there will be in your line of sight. Sky rotation is important because this telescope stares at a small patch of sky. Imagine you’re on the equator – to see a patch of sky you might need to wait 24 hours for it to be overhead again. At the South Pole, the sky just rotates around you, but doesn’t change.

So every year a team of researchers goes down to perform upgrades and/or maintenance on the telescope. Due to it’s location, Antarctica doesn’t have regular sunrise/sunset days. It’s always either 24 hours of night or 24 hours of day! The Antarctic summer daytime season is roughly November to mid-February. Other than it being warmer, you need the sun out to safely land planes, so this is when we do all of our telescope upgrades and maintenance!


We heard that you have to build or assemble most of your equipment. Is that typical in physics, or are you building something beyond what is normally commercially available? What is it used for?

Depends on the experiment! For our field, this is very typical. We are making extremely sensitive detectors and electronics, things that were designed specifically for this experiment. You definitely can’t buy any of it off the shelf, and it takes us years to develop and perfect. We are detecting the faint signal of polarization in the Cosmic Microwave Background.

Jessica and the receiver (sort of like a large camera) for the South Pole Telescope.


Tools in the workshop for building and maintaining the South Pole Telescope.


Does the cold ever cause problems for your experimental equipment? How cold is it actually?

Yes! We have to be very careful about this. The average temperature is about -60 ºF so none of our electronics can be exposed to that. We keep the whole receiver in a cabin that shields it from the elements, and are careful to stay vigilant about greasing all of the exposed gears of the telescope itself.

What is are the living quarters like? 

Other than the buildings that have experiments in them, at the South Pole, there is one big station. Here everyone eats, sleeps, and hangs out when they’re not working. Everybody gets a small single room with a lofted bed, a desk, and a wardrobe. They are small, but cozy! The only downside is that the walls are very thin, so you can basically hear your neighbors every movement.

Tell us about the gear you are issued to work in the South Pole.

We get all of our cold weather gear issued to us at the American base in New Zealand, and then have to return it when we come back off the ice. This includes big snow boots, gloves, a hat, a large jacket (your “Big Red” as it is affectionately called due to it’s color), and a pair of carhartts (heavy duty fleece lined overalls).

Scientists working in Antarctica are issued gear so they don’t freeze. There’s also a selection of gear for greasing the telescope.


We heard there’s a pod you can sit in to see the underside of the ice. What do you use it for? What are you looking for under the ice?

This is in McMurdo Station – the first stop on the continent that you have a layover at on your way to the South Pole. It’s basically a little observation peep hole into the marine life under the Antarctic ice. It’s very beautiful – you can see the crystaline structure of the ice overhead, and the little polar organisms swimming by. If you’re lucky you might see a penguin or seal!

Jessica Avva climbs into the “obs tube” which goes under the surface of the ice in Antarctica. Here, she can see the crystalline structure of the underside of the ice and lots of marine life.


We have to ask…have you seen any penguins?

I didn’t, much to my disappointment. The South Pole is completely landlocked, far in the interior of Antarctica, so you never get penguins there. The only chance one gets is on the flight in or out when you stop in McMurdo as a layover. Even then, you have to time it right, because penguins really only come during certain parts of the season (for example, they follow the icebreaker boats into the harbor during the peak of summer).

How do time zones work at the South Pole?

Jessica at the ceremonial South Pole

Everyone is on the same time zone that they were on when they got briefed in New Zealand, as is every American Base. That being said, the Chilean tourist camp is on a completely different time zone, and it’s only a stones throw away from the American base at the South Pole! When you’re at the South Pole, with 24 hours of daylight, it doesn’t really matter what time zone convention you choose to use, you just have to stay consistent with the people you are working with!

Is it true that there’s a “real” South Pole and a tourist South Pole, and that they’re in slightly different places?

Yes – there’s a pretty little barbershop pole, great for ceremonial pictures, and then there is the geographic south pole, which is actually shifting. So every New Year, the people of the station put up a new comemorative pole marker that the machinist makes, and shift the pole to the correct location.


Interview by Dana Simmons, Co-Editor for the ISC’s blog. Dana is working toward her Ph.D. in Neurobiology at The University of Chicago, where she studies autism and the cerebellum, and explores science through the lens of #SciArt. Follow Dana on Twitter @dhsimmons1 for updates on her research, ISC articles, and neuroscience-based art.